Safe Sunscreen Ingredients for Kids

To get effective sun protection, kids need to use sunscreen or sunblock that blocks both UVA rays and UVB rays (also called broad-spectrum sunscreen). This means properly using a sunscreen with a minimum sun protection factor (SPF) of 30, as well as reapplying sunscreen regularly and limiting direct sun exposure during peak sunlight hours.


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Sunscreen Ingredients

Read the label of your sunscreen to make sure the products you buy contain effective ingredients that are also deemed safe for use on kids. Note that many sunscreens contain multiple active ingredients, some of which protect against UVA rays or UVB rays; others block both.

"Broad-spectrum coverage including protection against both UVA and UVB provides the best protection against premature aging and skin cancer risk," says Andy Bernstein, MD, an Evanston, Illinois, pediatrician and clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Ingredients to Use

In 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released new guidelines listing ingredients it recognized as appropriate for use in sunscreen. These ingredients on provide broad-spectrum protection against both UVA rays and UVB rays:

  • Mexoryl SX, also known as ecamsule
  • Titanium dioxide
  • Zinc oxide

Of these, mexoryl SX and zinc oxide provide the most extensive UVA protection, and at least one of them should be in a good broad-spectrum sunscreen.

Unlike chemical sunscreen ingredients, which absorb the sun's rays, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are physical sunscreens that actually reflect the UVA and UVB rays of the sun. Newer versions of these sunscreen ingredients have made them popular again.

Physical barrier protection rather than chemical ingredients is ideal for delicate skin. "In children or adults with sensitive skin, sunscreens that have zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as active ingredients will be the least irritating," says Dr. Bernstein. If your child has sensitive skin, look for a sunscreen that is fragrance-free and hypoallergenic.

These ingredients primarily provide UVB protection and may be used in combination with other ingredients to provide full protection:

  • Mexoryl SX, also known as ecamsule
  • Padimate 0
  • Phenylbenzimidazole
  • Salicylates (homosalate, octisalate, trolamine salicylate)

Mexoryl SX is a newer sunscreen ingredient. It provides broad-spectrum protection against UVA and UVB rays and was previously only available in Europe. It is only available in high-end sunscreens, such as La Roche Posay Anthelios XL SPF 50 Cream and Lancome UV Expert 20.

Ingredients to Avoid

"Parents should make sure sunscreen does not contain PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid)," says Dr. Bernstein. Sunscreens containing PABA are less common today, as products with aminobenzoic acid and trolamine salicylate are not longer marketed in the U.S.

Additionally, in their sunscreen report, the FDA listed other ingredients that did not have sufficient evidence for use in sunscreens. These ingredients should be avoided until further data is collected on their safety and effectiveness:

  • Benzophenones (oxybenzone, dioxybenzone, sulisobenzone)
  • Cinoaxate
  • Menthyl anthranilate, also known as meradimate

There are many unknowns about the use of various sunscreen ingredients, such as retinyl palmitate (vitamin A) and oxybenzone. While some experts think they are safe, there are some conflicting studies and some controversy over recommendations. Some parents may choose to avoid these ingredients.

Other Ingredients

Helioplex is a name brand for a sunscreen stabilizer. It makes sunscreen ingredients more photostable, so that they don't break down when exposed to the sun.

Apply Sunscreen Effectively

Aim to use a minimum of 30 SPF. "A higher SPF is helpful, but it’s much more important to pay attention to reapplying sunscreen every two hours or immediately after getting out of the water, even if using a “waterproof” sunscreen," advises Dr. Bernstein.

Also, avoid prolonged sun exposure during peak sunlight hours (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) when the radiation from the sun is the strongest. Wearing lightweight long sleeves, pants, and swim shirts can also protect kids' skin.

Protecting Babies From the Sun

Avoid using spray sunscreens in infants and young children as there is a risk of inhaling the product during application. Also, note that "infants under six months can overheat very easily in direct sun, so although sunscreen can be applied to infants as young as two months of age, the safest approach is to keep young infants protected completely from any direct sun exposure," advises Dr. Bernstein.

6 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How can I protect my children from the sun?.

  2. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Federal Register 84FR6204, 2019-03019.

  3. Environmental Working Group. EWG's analysis of UV protection offered by U.S. sunsreens.

  4. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA fact sheet: FDA proposed rule: sunscreen drug products for over-the-counter human use; proposal to amend and lift stay on monographs.

  5. Paul SP. Ensuring the safety of sunscreens, and their efficacy in preventing skin cancers: challenges and controversies for clinicians, formulators, and regulatorsFront Med (Lausanne). 2019;6:195. doi:10.3389/fmed.2019.00195

  6. Npr. Not all sunscreens are created equal.

By Vincent Iannelli, MD
Vincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.